One more thing COVID-19 and lockdowns have changed drastically: Scientific conferences

Attendees at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology in Kyoto, Japan.

Conducting research can be one of the most laborious things for a person to do. It involves identifying gaps in the current body of knowledge and providing clues to various unanswered questions within a specific field. The approach differs slightly between various research specialties. In my field, Pharmacology, it involves reading a lot of scientific papers, planning and conducting of experiments, and ultimately publishing the obtained results in the form of journal articles and a Doctoral thesis. In all of this, there is one specifically exciting and rewarding part… sharing your findings with peers at scientific conferences.

Academic conferences are a platform where researchers meet to share research ideas and discoveries. This is usually done via oral presentations by senior researchers and presentations of posters by students. Conferences are a valuable platform that allow for collaboration and establishment of relations among academics. Typically, conferences run over a period of 4-5 days, and are a worthwhile experience, especially for young researchers.

Personally, attending conferences offered me an opportunity to travel out of the African continent for the first time. I got to travel to Lindau Germany to meet Nobel Prize winners. For any young scientist, being selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting is a huge privilege. Not only did I get to meet and have discussions with Nobel Laureates for the first time in my life, I also met and interacted and shared research experiences with PhD students from the most prestigious universities in the world. As a result of being selected for this meeting, I was featured in an article from the largest newspaper publishing in my city. As such, this meeting will remain a major highlight of my academic career.

From Germany, I immediately travelled to Japan to present my research findings at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology. We had booked the return tickets to both countries during different times, and I had to first travel back to South Africa the whole day, and immediately connect to Hong Kong for a 14-hour flight, before taking another 4-hour flight to Japan. As you can imagine, I was fatigued when I got to Japan, but experiencing the difference in the landscape and way of life in Japan compared to Africa rendered the fatigue was worth it! I found one thing bizarre though, some individuals wore facial masks in public, are rare sighting in the South Africa at the time. It turns out, Japan has a long history of disease outbreaks, and with the current advent of COVID-19, I now understand why they wore masks in public. The conference was abuzz with researchers from across the globe, who shared ground-breaking findings from their individual labs.

In addition to these international conferences, local conferences have afforded me the opportunity to meet peers form various Universities in South Africa, with whom I have exchanged research findings and ideas. Conferences have also offered me an opportunity to display my presentation skills. As a consequence I was given the Young Scientist Award in Basic Pharmacology for the 2nd best podium presentation at the First Conference of Biomedical and Natural Sciences and Therapeutics in 2018, while my late colleague lab mate got the 1st prize.

Left: Myself, presenting a  poster in Kyoto Japan at a world Pharmacology conference. Right: colleagues and myself carrying awards at a National Science conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Unfortunately, the global wave of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered conducting science conferences in person a challenging task. As a result, there has been an increase in online research conferences, as a way to sustain the level of academic exchange during these difficult times. Virtual meetings have many advantages, including a decrease in the financial burden and ease of access. A screen with multiple faces (figure below), and phrases like “please mute your mic” have been a familiar feature over the past year. Although the online environment allows for easy organization of meetings, I personally feel like the social connection that usually happens during person to person interactions is lost. For example, when I am presenting I love making eye contact with people in the audience as a way of evaluating their level of concentration. This falls away when your audience is behind muted mics and cameras and all one has to stare at is a computer screen.

The 2021 South Young African Academy of Science blogging team, meeting for the first time, in a virtual meeting earlier this year.

Person to person interaction during conferences fosters the establishment of relations and collaboration amongst researchers, and this is not particularly easy to do in a virtual setting. With vaccination strategies being rolled out in various countries being rolled out, I am hopeful that COVID-19 and lockdowns will soon be a thing of the past and we can safely resume physical conferences.

Locked Down and Dancing – Physical Activity over the Next 21 Days

By Prof Benita Olivier

On Monday evening, 23 March, President Cyril Ramaphosa broke the shocking, nonetheless expected news: South Africa will be under lockdown as of Thursday, 26 March 2020, at midnight.

At that time, many practical challenges raced through my mind. Some of my instantly created questions were answered during the president’s address that same evening while others remained dangling. One of them being: will I be able to take a walk around the block or run a kilometre or five in the hood during the lockdown period? After a spur of confusing communique, along came Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on the morning of the 25th of March  and said something that gave all dogs, strollers, walkers and runners hope – we are permitted to walk our dogs or go for a jog in the street. Brilliant news… until a few hours later when Police Minister Bheki Cele said: “There shall be no dogs that will be walked, the cluster met, discussed and we agreed that it doesn’t enhance the call made by the president. If you do really want to walk your dog around your house, it ends there, it can’t go beyond that.”

I made the logical deduction that my running shoes are not going to hit the tar for the next 21 days… It felt like a basic human right is being taken away. Instant rebellion. How can a solo runner inside an estate in a secluded neighbourhood make less sense than the 100 people hanging around in Pick ‘n Pay? I then came to the realisation that my individual human right to stay healthy and feel good are now second to the collective’s right to heal. In order for the lockdown measures to be implemented effectively, rules need to be applied consistently and stringently. I can imagine that it will be very difficult for the police to enforce control if all of us take to the streets to “walk our dogs”. For the greater good, I will comply, but this does not mean that I will throw my exercise attire into the back of my cupboard. No, we are humans and we have a great ability to adapt, and adapt it will be.

This is the time to look after our physical and mental health. Physical activity is globally recognised as the best medicine for attaining optimal health and preventing non-communicable diseases (diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, obesity, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, hypertension, chronic pain and mental health conditions). Especially relevant to our current situation, physically active people have a stronger immune system and a lower risk of infection. Physical exercise is important to maintain a healthy mental state. Exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, improves mood, self-esteem and cognitive functioning and it reduces anxiety, depression and negative mood. It is therefore clear that during this time, exercise is a lifeline!

I do urge you to keep going if you are already in the habit of doing some form of regular exercise. A decline in cardiovascular fitness present itself after 12 days of no exercising, not even to talk about doing nothing for 21 days. The heart and blood vessels fail to function as they should, while muscle strength, endurance and coordination reduce. Negative effects on blood pressure, blood sugar and the immune system will follow as soon as two weeks after you stopped training.

If you are not a regular, only you will know if this is the right time to start a brand new exercising habit (remember to consult with your doctor if you have an underlying illness). And actually, thinking about it, now is a brilliant time to start exercising! A time to fight the blues with some sweat!

The American College of Sports Medicine’s Exercise is Medicine initiative recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity per week. Moderate means that you can talk or sing while you do the activity, while during vigorous physical activity, no comfortable talking or singing is possible. You can do this in short spells of activity throughout the day or, say 30min to an hour at a time. In addition to aerobic activity, strength training is recommended twice a week.

How are we going to achieve the above? Here is where the innovation comes in. You can do it with or without exercise equipment. Body weight works brilliantly, but if you are fortunate to have a stationary bicycle, some weights and maybe a Pilates ball, great stuff. Star jumps, on-the-spot running, squats, lunges, arm dips, sit ups, all of these don’t require any special equipment. You will find a lot of exercise programmes on YouTube. The Exercise is Medicine website also has a few suggestions that can be found here.

Another solution is to download an app to your phone. Go through your app or play store and search for “exercise apps”. You will find quite a few. The one I use is called the “30 Day Fitness Challenge” – it mostly contains strengthening exercises where no special equipment is needed. The app contains various 30 day challenges – different body areas and different levels. It starts gently and slowly progresses. You even get an applause when you reach your daily goal. Another app, which has a specific cardio section is “Daily Workouts – Exercise Fitness Workout Trainer”. I don’t use these apps for any specific reason other than because they work for me, but there are many out there and it will be worth exploring a few options (while you lie comfortably on the couch).

If organised workouts are not the thing that makes you tick, then the good old traditional “counting the steps” is for you. Put on your step counter and get going with your chores while at the same time conquering your goal of 6000 to 10 000 steps per day. And… why not throw some dancing into the mix?

Things are serious out there and the best we can do is obey the rules and stay at home, but that does not mean we have to be miserable. We will be able to look back in 21 days’ time and think, not all was bad. We may be locked down, but our happiness is in our own hands.

#stayhomesavelives #exerciseathome

Benita Olivier is a professor in physical activity, exercise and sports and Research Director of the Wits Institute for Sport and Health at the University of the Witwatersrand.